"For me this is about getting back home, getting closer to family in Salina (Kansas)," said Budke. "The Big 12 is special, especially in women's basketball, one of the best, if not the best, conference in America. Oklahoma State has basketball tradition with Mr. Iba and, of course, Coach Sutton. I want to learn from him. Anytime he will let me hang around, then I want to do it."
On that same day, dressed to the nines and drawing attention from many of the younger sports reporters covering the news conference was Serna. Attractive, yes, and qualified, yes again, Serna came to Oklahoma State with Budke from Louisiana Tech. She had played for Budke at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College and helped lead the Cardinals to a 32-4 record and the NJCAA national championship in 1996 before going on to play Division I at the University of Houston.
Budke told me when he was introduced as the new Cowgirls head coach that Serna was a dynamite recruiter. While we both watched several reporters flirt with the attractive new Cowgirl assistant and laughed about it, Budke added that she would some day make an outstanding head coach.
That was the beginning of our relationship and our images of Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna. Those images would grow over the next six and a half years, but our final image is horrific – the thought of how Budke, Serna and longtime OSU supporters Olin and Paul Branstetter lost their lives in a plane crash on Nov. 17 in a heavily wooded area in Perry County, Arkansas. That is not how I will remember Coach Budke and Coach Serna. For those of you that did not have as many opportunities to freeze images of the two as I had, please let me help you.
With Budke the images are easy. The most colorful of which is the orange blazer he would break out for big games, including Bedlam matchups in Stillwater. It was funny because Budke was so self-conscious about wearing the brightly colored jacket the first several times. But the fans and players loved it. Some thought that it was a bit too much, but Budke's sense of humor was to make fun of himself, and the bright blazer fit right in.
Budke was capable of making light of many situations, but he was an intense competitor and even though he makes light of his playing career at Washburn University in Kansas, others tell a different story of his competitive nature on the floor. Before landing at Washburn, Budke had been an all-conference performer at Barton County Community College in Kansas. A member of the NJCAA Hall of Fame and Trinity Valley Community College's inaugural Hall of Fame class, Budke's teams won four NJCAA national championships. He has had just one losing season in 18 seasons as a head coach.
It is not his wins and losses, and coaching prowess that impressed those who knew Budke best, or created the images that I will remember most of Kurt Budke. As soon as the Budkes had settled into Stillwater, you kept seeing Kurt all over the place. He was at coffee downtown one morning. The next day you would see him at The Hideaway for lunch, then maybe walking at Boomer Lake in the evening.
When he was out and about in Stillwater, he was always around people. Budke was entertaining, could tell stories and corny jokes. He had a booming baritone voice and a laugh that made you feel good. It was Budke's friendly personality that endeared him to anyone and everyone, and brought new fans in by the droves to see Cowgirl basketball, including his first season in Stillwater when the team won just six of 28 games and finished 0-16 in the Big 12.
Then on one historic night, Jan. 12, 2008, all of Budke's new friends (he'd love that description) showed up at once as the Cowgirls hosted Bedlam rival Oklahoma. Cowgirl fans filled up Gallagher-Iba Arena with 13,611, a standing state collegiate single-game attendance record. The Cowgirls did not disappoint in beating OU 82-63.
I often told Budke, "If you wanted to run for mayor of Stillwater then you would be elected in a landslide." From that day on my nickname for Budke was "Mayor."
My best images of Budke came away from the basketball court. He adored his family and to see him and his wife Shelley together was to see two people deeply in love with each other. Kurt loved to help Shelley on projects near and dear to her, just as she had over the years with his basketball teams and his coaching career. I remember when Shelley was chairperson of the Stillwater Humane Society, Kurt would take her to the radio station to get out her message for fundraisers.
Then one day, my aunt and I were having lunch at Mexico Joe's and this delightful young lady was serving us. I recognized her and asked, "You are Sara Budke, right?" She answered affirmative and we talked about her classes and major at Oklahoma State. A solid but injury-prone basketball player in high school, Sara is an excellent student who gave up the game for college.
I remember going by his office just to tell him about my experience with Sara and what a beautiful and outstanding young lady she had become. Budke's eyes lit up. We spent 20 minutes in his office talking family, and Budke was more passionate than he had been in any conversation we had ever previously had. That is my favorite image of Budke, not from wins and losses, not from practices and press conferences, but from talking family.
Budke was also very proud of his sons Alex, who is now playing basketball at St. Gregory's in Shawnee, and Brett. It was fun to see Kurt with all of his kids and Shelley. You got the feeling Norman Rockwell would have enjoyed painting Kurt Budke. God bless Shelley, Sara, Alex and Brett for their loss and thank them for sharing their husband and father with us.
Miranda Serna could capture your attention in a hurry with her engaging smile and the way she was capable of making you feel she was your friend. Serna did that to me quite often because she knew that I broadcast a lot of high school basketball games on television. She also knew that my daughter played at Edmond. She would hear me enter the women's basketball office and from back in her office she would ask, "Who have you seen play lately?"
Serna could hardly get away from it. I am convinced that she would recruit basketball players in her sleep had it been humanly possible.
On the practice court, I often saw her work hard on players, a little yelling and a little intensity, but always a positive smile and even some off to the side motivational conversation to conclude. That's part of the image of Serna. It was part Kurt Budke as he was definitely her mentor, and she was the proverbial chip off the old block as a coach.
My lasting image is of Budke and Serna walking off the Gallagher-Iba Arena court together after a Cowgirls practice or game with smiles on their faces because they were doing what they loved.